Modern Art with Mass Appeal

By Nancy Moffitt

Joe Thompson, WG’87, and the rags to riches story of MassMOCA

If you call the Massachusettes Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMOCA), hope that you get put on hold. There’s no Muzak, information or even classical music, the usual museum standby. And while there’s little doubt you’ll be perplexed and even entranced by what you hear, you won’t know what it is you’re actually hearing. Could it be chimes, or a faint, high-pitched gong? What is that sound?

“It’s a recording of a sound art installation that Berlin artist Christina Kubisch did in our historic clocktower,” explains Joseph Thompson, WG’87 and director of MassMOCA, located in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusettes. “She went up into the clocktower and strummed and hammered and stroked the bells, recording some 90 separate mini-compositions to computer memory. She then hooked up a series of solar cells to the computer, and the computer picked and combined a short selection of mini-compositions depending on the location and intensity of the sunlight. The bell tower now responds to the weather. When you’re on hold, you hear a compilation of those sounds.”

Being put on hold at MassMOCA, it would seem, is diagnostic of the larger MassMOCA experience: off-center, daring, provocative, and according to the critics, something to be admired. “I have seen the future, and it’s MassMOCA,” wrote Lee Rosenbaum, contributing editor of Art in America magazine, in a Wall Street Journal article.

MassMOCA is the largest center of its kind in the nation, a sprawling complex of 27 renovated,once-abandoned factory buildings – 220,000 square feet of space in all – with a dramatic array of on-loan art including a Rauschenberg that fills a gallery the size of a football field. It is the 13-year creation of Thompson, who stubbornly nurtured the $31.4 million project despite numerous setbacks, including a temporary loss of state funding and asbestos-laden buildings.

Open since last Memorial Day, MassMOCA has drawn 100,000 visitors at this writing, and many would say brought new life to the dusty, struggling river town of North Adams. The national media has largely taken a kind and admiring view of MassMOCA and its rags to riches evolution, as well as Thompson, 41, its feisty leader.

The idea of MassMOCA was conceived by Thomas Krens, then director of the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts, who envisioned the country’s largest museum for contemporary art. The original plan seemed simple enough: the state would fund the renovation of the striking but tattered buildings, while major private collectors would provide the art. But in 1988 this plan began to unravel. The Massachusetts economy took a nosedive along with Michael Dukakis’ campaign for president, and Krens left to become director of the Guggenheim. Meanwhile, the project’s initial partnerships fell through, and the state withdrew its support. Thompson was left “holding the baby,” wrote Time magazine, adding that he “has proved a shrewd parent.” Thompson restructured the highly politicized project from museum to arts center. Over a period of years, he raised millions in private funds, a condition of the state’s continued financial support.

“The opportunity was so vast and so rare, so that even when the odds were long it seemed worth the risk and worth the work,” Thompson says. “I think there were many times when the rational thing to do would be to quit, but there was never a graceful time to do it. Many people volunteered time. Many people gave money. And I think once you accept people’s volunteer efforts and ask for donations, you take on a certain debt. It’s not something you can just leave easily or lightly and I always felt that there was an implicit responsibility to turn over every last stone.”

Today, this “work in progress,” as the staff likes to call it, is promoted as a “supercollider for the arts” because it offers far more than paintings and sculpture: it’s a venue for new art of all forms – performance, film, media, visual arts. Recent performances have included a 3-D Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opera and South African artist William Kentridge’s work on “Animation and Apartheid.” Its huge, light-filled spaces allow for massive works of art, some of which have never been exhibited publicly. Joseph Beuys’ enormous sculpture “Lightning with Stag in its Glare,” owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has its own room at MassMOCA but is too big to be displayed in Philadelphia.

“It’s a vast, open platform,”Thompson says. “It’s not a place that just shows finished work. We emphasize the making — our rehearsals are open to the public, and when a gallery is being refit by a visiting artist, the construction and fabrication process is very much available. I think that by showing in a very straight-forward way the continuum between conception, making, and presentation, the work just becomes more accessible. Contemporary art is challenging stuff – it has a way of swirling around in its own little closed universe, and this makes it more open. You can see work, and I think this metaphor for work is not a bad one for us,” he says, referring to the site’s 120-year history as a factory.

An important part of MassMOCA’s mission and another key reason for Thompson’s grit in bringing the project to life is the related economic redevelopment of North Adams, the struggling, blue-collar river town where the museum is housed. Long considered the poor stepsister to neighboring Berkshire hamlets such as Williamstown and Stockbridge, North Adams in the mid 1990s had about 25 percent unemployment, an abysmal real estate market, and a 70 percent retail vacancy rate, says Thomson. Today, 70 percent of the storefronts are full, and unemployment is down to about 5 percent.

“There’s still room for improvement,but the catalytic effect has begun,” he says. “There’s a feeling of optimism now. There’s often a lot of talk about community engagement by the arts and a lot of grantsmanship language that goes into how certain institutions can affect people’s lives. But here it seemed like it could be real – real in the sense that the scale of the project in relationship to the scale of the town was of sufficient magnitude that it could play a redefining role.”

MassMOCA occupies about one third of North Adams’ business district, and Thompson believes the town’s site amid a constellation of top-notch cultural institutions – Tanglewood Music Festival, the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Williamstown Theater Festival – will bring an art-hungry crowd. And in an interesting blurring of the lines between commercial and non-profit, MassMOCA has also brought new commerce to North Adams. Thompson saw the potential in the site’s overabundance of space and decided to supplement operating expenses by renting office space to commercial tenants. To date, a Hollywood special effects company, several e-commerce companies, a local newspaper, and a web-publishing company have rented space in the fiber-optic wired, renovated buildings.

Thompson admits he never imagined his career evolving the way it has. Born in a small farming community in Oklahoma to a family of bankers, he assumed he would follow the family way. He went to Williams College and studied business, but a trip to Vienna stopped him in his tracks. He returned to Williams with a new passion for art and museums, and changed his major to art history his senior year. After graduating, Thompson took a job at the Williams College Museum of Art during its expansion and renovation in the early 1980’s and in 1984 was awarded a residency at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington as the James Webb Fellow for excellence in the management of cultural institutions. He then came to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned simultaneous master’s degrees from Wharton and the Graduate School of Fine Arts.

“I think the University’s willingness, and even encouragement, to cross over disciplines that seemed to have little crossover was encouraging to me, and that’s the reason I chose the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton particularly,” says Thompson, who lives with his wife and two-year-old son in Williamstown. “What I learned has been essential, because this project is also probably the largest real estate development project in western Massachusetts at the moment.” Indeed, the MassMOCA project required private philanthropy, public investment, and private financing, and “those are all skills that one picks up at a place like Wharton. You don’t find a lot of that studying Marcel Duchamp.”

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